The lack of private clinics dealing with chronic pain has increased the long waiting time to access the pain management unit at Canberra Hospital, ACT Health and Wellbeing Minister Meegan Fitzharris says.
"There are only a small number of private clinics that support residents of the ACT and surrounding region, which increases the demand placed on public services," Ms Fitzharris told Fairfax Media. She defended the long waiting time for patients to access the unit, highlighting the different wait times for people experiencing acute (sudden, short-term) pain and those with chronic (ongoing, long-term) pain.
"For urgent patients, the current wait time to access the Pain Management Unit is less than four weeks," Ms Fitzharris said, but she did confirm that for those with chronic ongoing issues is much longer.
"The current waiting time for routine, non-urgent medical appointments is approximately nine months," she said.
The difficulty for public patients to access pain management services in the ACT has been highlighted as the clock ticks down to February 1, when medications containing codeine will become available only with a prescription from a doctor. The ACT government and the Australian Medical Association support the move, but with just 68% of GP appointments bulk-billed in the ACT in the 2016-17 financial year (compared to 78% across the whole country), referrals and prescriptions are harder to come by.
"Changes in accessing codeine are important for minimising harms associated with the abuse and misuse of over the counter codeine, with the potential for addiction. Some Australians don't realise how much harm codeine can cause," Ms Fitzharris said.
The minister didn't commit to considering new measures for pain management services in the ACT, but pointed towards the ACT government's existing investment in health, including the new rehabilitation hospital at the University of Canberra, which is due to open this year.
"ACT Health would welcome an expansion of trained general practitioners in this area to provide better outcomes to patients experiencing chronic pain," she said.
"Chronic pain currently costs the Australian economy approximately $39 billion (according to 2009 data)," Ms Fitzharris said, emphasising the wider issues around dealing with chronic pain.
"Pain management is a secondary qualification and Australia wide there is a shortage of specialists within this field."